Sleepaway School: Stories from a Boy's Life
reviewed by Jeffrey L. Lewis - 2006
In many ways, Lee Stringers memoir Sleepaway School is about what it means to be an African American child living in the contradictory space that often exists between African Americans and whites. With evocative detail, Stringer crafts a nuanced story about the ambiguity of living between survival and resistancea struggle as common to todays poor urban African American as it was for Black children in the days of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Through Stringers eyes, we discover what it means to live on the edge of white imagination and ignorance, and to be at the mercy of it. However, Stringers story is also about the creative potential of this space, and how we can occasionally transform it from a space of hostility and ignorance, to one of friendship and understanding.
Sleepaway School primarily takes place at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, a school for troubled children in a largely white affluent suburb of New York City. While living with his single mother and his brother, Caverly Stringer (Lee Stringers given name) finds himself torn from his home and sent to the school by the state in the 6th grade after committing a series of transgressions in his elementary school that were tinged with racial conflict and misunderstanding.
Stringer offers compelling portraits of troubled boys negotiating identities and relationships while growing into adolescence. He does a superb job of pulling the reader into his world and those of the other boys at the school, drawing us in as participants, not as spectators. Stringers story takes us on an emotion-filled journey that is exhilarating, painful, and always satisfying. Fundamentally, Stringers memoir is about his attempt to make sense of the pain, and longing and heartbreak that are his constant companions in childhood. In particular, this memoir is about the experience of an African American child moving from middle childhood into adolescence, while negotiating the arbitrariness of racism. Whether the white people of Stringers childhood intend kindness or hostility, he constantly finds himself having to negotiate and adapt to their misconceptions and ignorance of him.
In this sense, Stringers childhood exemplifies the challenges facing many of todays African American children in schools and other institutions. African American children must regularly learn both how to survive and to resist racism. According to Patricia Hill Collins (2000), this is a perilous balancing act. In discussing African American mothers socialization of their children, Collins argues that African American women concerned with the survival of their children teach them behaviors that are accommodating to experiences of racism. At the same time, they want their children to resist the negative influences of racism as well as confront and transform oppressive situations. However, these twin goals are often contradictory. Accommodating behaviors may help one survive, but jeopardize the integrity of ones sense of self and identity, while acts of resistance can easily jeopardize survival.
The effort to negotiate the arbitrariness and unpredictability of racism can also make African Americans weary, as Stringer describes himself to a therapist when he is committed to a mental health hospital for a few weeks after a potentially violent encounter with Pee Wee, another African American boy with whom he has an uneasy relationship at the school. Though one might expect Stringer and Pee Wee to be allies, race and class collide between them to undermine this possibility, making the space that Stringer inhabits even more tenuous and dangerous. Living between resistance and survival in the shadow of whiteness sometimes makes Stringer feel crazy and do crazy things.
One of the first examples of this is when Stringer is in the third grade and he punches a white boy for no apparent reason. He tells us that he did not know why he did it, that he had never in his life thrown a punch at anyone. However, we learn that his class has been studying slavery, using a textbook that carried a Currier & Ives illustration. The illustration depicted a sleeping Black slave as a creature barely recognizable as human, while fair-haired (white) boys loomed over him, making a sport of trying to push a piece of straw into his grotesquely gaping nostrils. The illustration embarrassed and angered Stringer and seemed to confirm for him the unequal division between black and white in the world.
With the skill of a master storyteller, we are escorted by Stringer into a contradictory and emotionally charged world in which the seeming randomness of racism and the unpredictable ways of white hostility and white naïveté frustrate and anger him, and place him at risk. It is the first of several such incidents, indicative of the perils of living with racism, for the space between his life as an African American boy and that of the white people around him is not a neutral spaceit is one charged with unequal power and privilege that provokes and punishes Black anger while obscuring white culpability.
However, Stringer does not allow us to sit comfortably with a dichotomous black-white view of the world. His relationships with whites also point to the creative potential of the space between Black and white lives. Though he often experiences anger, violence, and alienation, at times his relationships with whites are partially transformed and infused with affection and understanding. What is instructive about these transformations is how they seem to come about. Each time it appears to be the willingness of each party to be vulnerable in what they share about themselves, and respectfully receive the vulnerability of the other that allows friendship to emerge.
Lee Stringers moving and poignant memoir is an important work for at least two reasons. First, it is a rare look into the life of an African American boy as told in his own voicea voice that is disturbingly absent in much of the contemporary discourse about African American male children. Second, Stringers memoir is important as a nuanced and intelligent treatment of race. He uncompromisingly identifies and names the painful and infuriating injustices of interpersonal and institutional racism without sacrificing subtlety, complexity, or hope.
Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.